Research Suggests ...
By Iain Murray
Special to UPI
From the Business
& Economics Desk
WASHINGTON, March 21 (UPI) -- There's an old saying that
"the road to hell is paved with good intentions." It may be
time that "road" was replaced with "railroad." A new study by
the Laissez Faire Institute in Chandler, Ariz., takes a good
hard look at the economics of various transportation choices.
The news is not good for the rail enthusiasts.
Back in 1945, 50 percent of all trips were made by bus,
trolley or rail. That figure today is down to just 2 percent,
much of it concentrated in the Northeast of the country. The
reason is simply that Americans grew wealthy enough to afford
their own individual form of transportation -- the automobile.
Because most American cities were not the cramped masses of
twisting streets that cause problems for car users in the Old
World, there was no disincentive to slow down this
Yet even so, government bodies continue to believe they
should persuade Americans to use different forms of transport.
The study, "Public Transit: A Bad Product at a Bad Price,"
sets out how governments now spend 20 times as much per
person-mile on public transport as they do on roads, how
people who never use public transport pay two-thirds of their
cost via taxation and how automobile users are actually paying
more than the economic cost of car use.
Not only is this a bad use of resources, argues the
institute, but the solutions chosen are worse than they could
be. Transportation officials have regularly gone for glamorous
light rail solutions rather than cheaper, more flexible buses.
Light rail, for instance, literally sets in stone transit
routes, while buses can be switched easily to other routes
should demographic patterns change. Moreover, the new systems
normally fail to attract passengers out of their cars, while
attracting passengers off existing bus routes; up to 80
percent of light rail passengers used bus routes previously.
Because of these factors, light rail costs $1.20 per passenger
mile, compared to 75 cents for buses and only 34 cents for
Yet there is one important point that is often forgotten in
transportation discussions. Buses have a terrible image
problem in the United States. Someone once said, "Show me a
man who rides a bus at 30 and I will show you a failure." It
is partly for this reason that buses are so much more
expensive than private cars. Nor have governments gone out of
their way make them more attractive. Virtually no one rides
the bus in Birmingham, Ala., for instance, because they still
run the old routes that used to carry African-American servant
women from their homes to the homes of their white employers
and back again. This is hardly conducive to attracting people
who need to get to and from downtown work locations. Buses
could probably be much more cost-effective if a little thought
was given to their use.
Overall, however, the study is right to point out the
inefficiencies of so much of the nation's transportation
strategies. Good intentions don't pay for themselves.
A major op-ed column in The Washington Post this week by
Walter Russell Mead of the Council for Foreign Relations
argued strongly for military action in Iraq on the grounds
that many thousands of children and adults were being killed
by the "containment" policy. Unfortunately for Mead, the
figures he used were debunked some time ago.
Mead argued that "containing (Saddam) for another 10 years
condemns at least another 360,000 Iraqis to death. Of these,
240,000 will be children under 5. Those are the low-end
estimates. Believe UNICEF and 10 more years kills 600,000
Iraqi babies and altogether almost 1 million Iraqis."
Yet independent writer and blogger Matt Welch pointed out
in the pages of Reason magazine in March last year that
figures like these had been exaggerated. To begin with, not
every death attributed to sanctions could be laid at their
door: "drought, hospital policy, breast-feeding education,
Saddam Hussein's government, depressed oil prices, the Iraqi
economy's almost total dependence on oil exports and food
imports, destruction from the Iran-Iraq and Persian Gulf wars,
differences in conditions between the autonomous north and the
Saddam-controlled south, and a dozen other variables difficult
to measure without direct independent access to the country"
all pressed competing claims.
Moreover, the figures for deaths themselves have dubious
provenance. One source was a five-day survey of fewer than 700
households, from which 500,000 child deaths a year were
extrapolated. Other figures were reprinted by the World Health
Organization direct from information supplied by the Iraqi
Ministry of Health. The idea that the Iraqis might have been
exaggerating did not seem to occur to the U.N.
Nevertheless, as Welch said, the truth is bad enough. If we
take the respectable estimates of Professor Richard Garfield
from the School of Nursing at Columbia University, we still
see at least 15,000 children under age 5 dying each year as a
direct result of Saddam staying in power. Mead's case would
have been strong enough if he had used these figures. It is a
shame he felt he had to rely on discredited figures.
There is ongoing debate in the medical profession about a
new idea called "evidence-based medicine," which prescribes
treatments only on the basis of strong evidence of the
efficacy of the treatment. Critics have derided it as
"cookbook" medicine, slavishly following a recipe regardless
of patient circumstances. A new organization in Britain
critical of the practice published its manifesto in the
British Medical Journal on Dec. 21 last year. It is called the
Clinicians for the Restoration of Autonomous Practice (CRAP)
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